Watford vs West Ham United Preview: Top half finish up for grabs
Photo by Getty Images/Christopher Lee

Watford vs West Ham United Preview: Top half finish up for grabs

The winner of this tie will secure a place in the top ten as the 2018/19 Premier League season draws to a close.

Jake Horwood

After nine gruelling months of frenzied, intense Premier League action, the season concludes on Sunday. And with one Champions League place plus, of course, the title itself still to play for, perhaps the importance of this game at Vicarage Road will be somewhat dampened.

Make no mistake of it, though — both sides will be treating this one as a must-win, with a top ten finish and an ensuing swing of at least £6million in prize money to play for.

The hosts, Watford, will be looking to end a superb season for the club on a high. The Hornets began the campaign with a 100% record from their first four games, and while form of that exact magnitude has not quite been maintained, they have been consistent and measured in amassing the club's best-ever Premier League points tally.

They are aiming for a win here to secure their first top-half finish in the top flight since 1987, to sit alongside the achievement of their first FA Cup final since 1984.

Last time out, Watford had their own profligacy to blame as they were defeated 3-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Despite an exceptional first-half showing, the deadlock was yet to be broken heading into half-time, and goals from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, David Luiz and Gonzalo Higuaín tipped the even balance in favour of the Blues.

Meanwhile, West Ham United come into this tie in a rich vein of form, and will be looking to round off their season accordingly. They are unbeaten in three and inflicted defeat on Tottenham Hotspur for the first time at their new stadium just a fortnight ago.

The Hammers earned an effortless 3-0 victory over Southampton last weekend, despite needing to make do without the attacking impetus of Robert Snodgrass and Felipe Anderson. A lethargic tie was brought to life by Marko Arnautović's brace before Ryan Fredericks completed the scoring in the 72nd minute.

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It's been a year plagued with injury and inconsistency for the east London outfit, yet this game provides the opportunity to quench any pessimism and propel themselves into next season with positive direction as well as a place in the top 10 next to their name.

Previous meetings

In the reverse fixture, just three day before Christmas, Watford ended a run of four consecutive wins for West Ham as they triumphed 2-0 at the London Stadium. Troy Deeney put the visitors ahead with a first-half penalty before Gerard Deulofeu's well-executed finish sealed all three points for the Hornets.

Subsequently, should Watford win here, it will be the first time in their history that they have completed a league double over the Hammers.

West Ham have not won at Vicarage Road since the Hornets' promotion to the top-flight in 2015.

View from the dugout

Despite a fairly comfortable victory over their opponents back in December, Javi Gracia expects a much tougher game this time around and knows his side will have to perform at the top of their game if they are to secure the win.

"They are improving and they are now playing better than at the beginning of the season," the 49-year old said. "They have a very good squad and a very good manager. We know it will be an equal game — the first game we won but it was very equal. We must make the last effort to try and compete in this game like we have done before."

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The Spaniard is not taking this game lightly, but insists that points and positions are not the only metrics of success upon which he wishes to be evaluated. This season has been one to cherish for Gracia on a personal level, and he intends to conclude it in the best way possible.

"It's always important to finish well. In this case I think it's important to finish with a good feeling, playing well and winning the points. It's important to play a good game, to have good feelings and for the supporters to be proud of us. For me the success this season is not the position or the points. I am living with pride and enjoying this moment."

Meanwhile, Manuel Pellegrini prepares to lock horns with a familiar face. The Chilean and Gracia worked together some 15 years ago at Villarreal, with the former serving as first-team manager and the latter coaching the reserve sides.

He has been full of praise for his former assistant: "Watford with Javi are doing a brilliant season, not only for the amount of points that they have in the Premier League, but also because they are in the FA Cup final. That deserve credit for the players and the manager.

"I don't think they will be distracted by the final. They have one week more to prepare and they will want to finish strong with they fans at home, so I don't think anyone will be thinking about that."

Like his counterpart, Pellegrini is determined to earn a finish in the top half of the table, and believes such an achievement would be a mark of the progression of the club over the last nine months.

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"If we finish in the top half, that will mean we've had a good season, especially when you compare to last season — we finished 13th and if we finish in the top ten now it would be a good position for us, but for the future we must continue to work harder to continue improving. It is important to know that we have made an improvement but that we need to do better next season.

"I am confident we can do that," he professed. "If we have a normal season, without so many injured players, we can be a more consistent team. The way we have played against the big teams this season shows we can improve a lot."

Team news

Recently crowned as the Graham Taylor Player of the Season, Watford's Étienne Capoue returns to availability after missing last weekend with a groin problem.

Miguel Britos was also absent but will be be in contention to feature here, while veteran goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes could be favoured ahead of first-choice Ben Foster in what will likely be his last ever game at Vicarage Road.

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West Ham are boosted by the return of Snodgrass from suspension, while Declan Rice and Anderson — who were also both absent last weekend — have recovered from a virus in time to feature.

Jack Wilshere will be angling for his first start since September after overcoming multiple ankle injuries.

Predicted XIs

Watford — Gomes; Femenía, Cathcart, Britos, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Hughes, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.

West Ham United — Fabiański; Fredericks, Balbuena, Diop, Masuaku; Rice, Noble; Antonio, Lanzini, Anderson; Arnautović.